Pets on planes: The dangers of flying

October 28, 2012 8:22:48 PM PDT
We're approaching the busiest air travel time of the year, and more of us are taking perhaps the most vulnerable members of our families along for the ride.

We're talking about pets. But before you take off, there are some important steps to take.

John Picciotto has had dogs for years, and because they're part of the family, he and his family take their animal companions along for the ride.

"It's really over the past few years its really picked up with all the airlines being really pet friendly and trying to care of folks with their pets going on vacation with them," Picciotto said.

Southwest Airlines approved pet transport three years ago. Pets fly for $75 each way and they stay with their owner, flying in the cabin in a carrier beneath the seat as long as they are comfortable and can stand up and turn around within their crates.

Southwest does not offer transportation for large animals that are typically crated and housed in the cargo area of a plane. Most other airlines do, and most animals arrive at their destination without problem.

But if there is a problem, it can be catastrophic for the pet and its owner. Michael Jarboe is one of those stories.

"We dropped him off. We filled out all of our paperwork, took him to go potty one more time. He got back, got back in his crate," Jarboe said. "It was the last time I saw him."

He was Bam Bam, Jarboe's Neapolitan Mastiff, and he was traveling with his owner from Miami to San Francisco on a United Airlines flight in August. The flight had a four-hour layover at Bush Intercontinental Airport. According to the airline, Bam Bam was taken to a USDA-approved holding facility at the airport, which has fans but no air-conditioning.

Jarboe says he saw the dog in his plastic crate on the tarmac as the plane was being readied for takeoff. The heat index that afternoon, according to the National Weather Service, was 100 degrees.

"And I've got a direct shot inside his kennel. And his tongue is hanging down this far," Jarboe said. "He's pacing back and forth. He's slobbering. I've never seen him that hot."

After arriving in San Francisco, Jarboe was told Bam Bam was dead.

A necropsy performed several days later concluded the death was the result of cardiovascular collapse.

While stating in a letter to Jarboe that his dog's death was "not a result of transit-related handling," United refunded the cost of the ticket and compensated him for the cost of a replacement puppy.

Airline pet deaths are uncommon, but not unheard of. From January through August this year, the Department of Transportation reports 19 animals died in transit -- two on American Airlines, 10 on Delta Airlines and seven on United. According to necropsies, some had underlying health conditions and some suffered heat stroke.

Pet deaths are the exceptions, but these are some recommendations for pet owners:

  1. Use a well-ventilated crate or kennel
  2. In hot climates, place a frozen container of water in the carrier
  3. Tell the airline crew you have an animal on board

"I want you to know the flight attendant. I want you to know the person who's going to take the dog, that my dog is on the plane and he matters to me," said Dr. Alice Frei with Southside Place Animal Hospital.

It's advice for the thousands of owners who travel by air with their dogs, cats and more.

Delta says it no longer allows breeds of dogs and cats susceptible to overheating to fly cargo.

American states that it safely transports more than 100,000 pets a year, half in the cabin and the rest in temperature-controlled cargo.

United said in a statement that the safety of the animals it transports is always considered first and foremost in its routing and carriage decisions.


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